Welcome. Wilkommen. Bienvenue. Bienvenidos. Haere Mai. Selamat Datang. After hello, it’s the first thing you hear when entering other people’s homes, workplaces, theaters, places of worship, countries. It’s what we say when we want to make people feel at home in a strange place. It’s what our parents, teachers, and most if not all religious organizations ask us to do: welcome strangers and make them feel comfortable
I am reminded of all the times I have been welcomed by strangers during my travels. I remember a great feast being prepared on a balcony in a Moroccan mountain town, and a basket of potatoes representing a day’s worth of food for the whole family being offered to me in a Peruvian village. Whether in a grand estate or a simple hut, people around the world have gone out of their way to make me feel at home, part of the family even. Often, those who have the least have seemed willing to share this kind of hospitality most readily, and I have been touched by such generosity time and again. Students who return from travel programs often comment on this behavior and vow to be more welcoming to strangers when they return home, remarking that in our culture we have sometimes forgotten this simple courtesy.
I feel embarrassed by such rudeness, when I see it in myself and when it is exhibited on our national stage. When Donald Trump suggests we refuse to let Muslims into the United States, and we vote not to take in Syrian refugees, I cringe. In sharp contrast, Canada’s Prime Minister Trudeau has modeled welcoming behavior this week. In his speech, he embodied both the spirit and the act of welcome. “You’re safe at home now,” he told them, as he handed out winter coats. He pledged to follow his words with policies and programs to support the new arrivals. I had first hand knowledge of those policies when my Canadian niece and her husband told me they signed up to use their Airbnb suite to house refugees and the government would pay the rental fees. Trudeau also gained my respect when he spoke to First Nations people, welcoming them as full citizens with equal rights. He promised to reverse unjust policies put in place by his predecessor and work to build a new relationship with indigenous peoples, “one that understands that constitutionally guaranteed rights are not an inconvenience but a sacred obligation, one based on recognition of rights, respect, cooperation and partnership.”
Another impressive show of Canadian welcome can be seen in the musical Come From Away at the Seattle Repertory Theatre. It is the story of how the town of Gander, Newfoundland welcomed visitors whose planes were diverted to their town on September 11, 2001 and spent 5 days in Gander, nearly doubling in size due to their arrival. The night I saw it, Seattle’s mayor was in the audience to welcome Gander’s mayor who was seeing the work for the first time. As I watched the beautiful story of his town’s generous gifts to these strangers unfold, knowing how proud he must feel of his community. The comparison of our two governments’ responses to people in need made me feel ashamed.
The final opportunity for me to ponder the concept of welcome was the movie Brooklyn. The film follows a young Irish woman making her way in the “sometimes but not always welcoming” big city. Her struggles to understand difference, fit in, hold on to her homeland while making a new life in the US underscores the challenges all refugees and immigrants face, and how we could do a better job of helping people with the tremendous difficulties they encounter.
I’m not saying we never welcome strangers, but I do think we need to take a hard look at our founding principles. Unless you are Native American, your family immigrated at some point from some place, and more often than not, they were welcomed when they got here. The disturbing fact that we are turning away refugees, calling them a terror threat when they are fleeing from terrorism, makes me examine my own heart and vow to be more welcoming myself. This is the perfect time of year to begin. There are so many who do not feel welcomed by their own families and find it especially painful to witness so much focus on family traditions. I pledge to greet people I meet on the street with a welcoming gesture, invite someone who has nowhere to go during the holidays into my home, open my heart to refugees of all shapes and sizes.